Ten Greatest Pop Stars Before 1950
America’s Singers of Popular Music Have Been a Hit Throughout the World
This list only includes solo artists of American popular music who began their recording (or publishing) careers before 1950. Some of these stellar folks began their careers in vaudeville or on Broadway, and then became stars in movies, radio and television. Talk about a grand slam! Of course, the work of virtually all of these artists can be found on the Internet – and aren’t we all very lucky for that?
Now let’s begin the countdown!
10. George M. Cohan
George M. Cohan, nicknamed “the Man Who Owned Broadway,” appeared in scores of Broadway musicals in the early decades of the 1900s. Known as a playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and producer, Cohan wrote more than 300 songs. Known as a Tin Pan Alley songwriter, Cohan wrote numerous classics, including “Over There,” “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” His life and music were highlighted in the movie, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), starring James Cagney as Cohan, a part for which Cagney won the Academy Award for Best Actor. And in 1968 George M!, a Broadway musical based on Cohan’s life, was produced.
Cohan began performing at the age of eight and appeared in a family vaudeville act called The Four Cohans in the 1890s. Then, at the turn of the twentieth century, Cohan began writing original skits, songs and plays; his first Broadway musical was The Governor’s Son (1901) and his first hit, Little Johnnie Jones (1904). In the 1930s, Cohan acted in silent films and talkies but mostly continued writing and appearing in Broadway musicals and straight plays during his twilight years. As an American entertainer, Cohan could be considered the Father of American Pop. George M. Cohan died in November 1942, at age 64.
9. Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole started performing very young, first playing the organ in church at the age of four and later became a great pianist, specializing in jazz, gospel and classical. While a teenager, Cole formed the King Cole Swingers, a trio (piano, double bass and guitar), which began performing and recording in the middle 1930s. At first, Cole only played the piano but eventually began singing, becoming ever more popular in that regard. While playing in clubs in the 1930s and ‘40s, the trio also performed on various radio shows, particularly Swing Soiree, Kraft Music Hall and The Orson Welles Almanac. Cole’s first hit record was “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” which sold over 500,000 copies. This swinging single is considered one of the precursors to rock and roll, incidentally.
Cole’s career really took off in the 1950s, when he sang and recorded countless hits, such as “Mona Lisa” (1950), “Unforgettable” (1951) and “Smile” (1954). Along the way, he worked with the best composers, musicians and arrangers in show business. Then, in 1956, The Nat King Cole Show, appeared on NBC, the first TV program hosted by an African-American. Unfortunately, the show never found a national sponsor and soon ended. Cole kept performing into the 1960s, releasing hit albums and appearing in TV variety shows, sitcoms and movies. Nat King Cole died in February 1965, age 45.
8. Perry Como
Perry Como began working as a barber when he was 14 and while waiting for customers to come into the shop he crooned away like Bing Crosby. Then in 1932, Como won an audition as a singer for the Carlone band in Cleveland, Ohio. Three years later, Como joined Ted Weem’s Orchestra, with which he later recorded his first song, “You Can’t Pull the Wool over My Eyes.” In 1942, Como quit the Weem’s band and went solo, soon signing a recording contract with RCA Victor; he also appeared regularly on CBS radio in New York City and sang in such famous venues as the Copacabana Nightclub. Along with singing stars such as Frank Sinatra, Como began the very popular “crooning craze.”
Como made the move to television in 1948, when NBC televised his radio show, the Chesterfield Supper Club. Como, unlike many actors and singers of the era, did very well on television, and in 1955 NBC produced the one-hour variety show, The Perry Como Show, which would become one of the first TV shows broadcast in color; and from the 1950s into the 1960s Como became the highest paid performer on TV. In addition to singing on radio and television, Como appeared in many movies and recorded scores of singles and albums. Interestingly, Bing Crosby once said Como was “the man who invented casual.” Perry Como died in May 2001, age 88.
7. Lena Horne
Multi-award winning singer, and seemingly ageless beauty, Lena Horne maintained a stellar career as an entertainer and recording artist for over 70 years. At the age of 16 in 1933, Horne began her performing career, working as a chorus girl in the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. By the end of the 1930s, Horne started acting in movies such as The Duke Is Tops (1938), Boogie Woogie Dream (1941) and Panama Hattie (1942), in which she sang perhaps her signature tune, “Stormy Weather.” Eventually, Horne, of mixed ancestry, though labeled as a woman of African-American descent, acquired the nickname, “The Bronze Venus.” Consequently, over Horne’s career, she encountered much black-oriented stereotyping and censorship.
In the 1950s, for alleged left-wing affiliations during the so-called Red Scare, Horne was blacklisted by Hollywood, so for a time she concentrated on her nightclub act and recording careers. Astonishingly, over the decades, Horne released over 40 albums, winning four Grammy Awards; she also garnered numerous other awards and praise in the entertainment industry. And, in 1980, Horne starred in a one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, a Broadway show for which she won a Tony Award. Lena Horne died in May 2010, age 92.
6. Louis Armstrong
Primarily a jazz trumpeter and cornet player, but also a singer and composer, Louis Armstrong, aka Satchmo, became a rising star during the Jazz Age of the 1920s, performing with Joe “King Oliver” in the Creole Jazz Band at venues in Chicago and New York City. Armstrong also developed an impressive stage persona, utilizing scat singing and storytelling, which propelled him through both the jazz and pop genres; he was also considered one of the first “cross over” artists, that is, one who was popular with both white and black audiences. Notably, at this time, Armstrong began his recording career by cutting records at Gennett and Okeh record companies. In 1924, Armstrong left the Creole Jazz Band and joined the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, a big step up for him.
During the 1940s, Armstrong continued touring mostly with small jazz bands rather than orchestras, sometimes doing as many as 300 gigs per year. In the 1950s and into the 1970s, Armstrong became a performer of international fame. Then, in 1964, Armstrong recorded his best-selling single, “Hello, Dolly!” a song originally sang by Broadway star Carol Channing. The tune remained on the Billboard Hot 100 for 22 weeks, dethroning the Beatles as the top of the pops. (An album of the same name went gold, selling over 500,000 copies.) At the end of Armstrong’s career he garnered a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Louis Armstrong died in July 1971, age 69.
5. Al Jolson
Many people may remember Al Jolson as an American entertainer who often performed wearing blackface makeup, which Jolson famously wore while appearing in the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer (1927). This wasn’t meant to be an insult to black people; it was simply a means to introduce African-American music, such as blues, ragtime and jazz, to the American public, and this Jolson did with great verve, joviality and melodrama. In fact, Jolson was one of the first white entertainers to decry anti-black discrimination on Broadway. Anyway, sometimes dubbed the “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” and this may have been true, Jolson was the highest-paid act in the 1920s and ‘30s, and he was the first performer to entertain American troops overseas during World War Two (he entertained them during the Korean War too).
As with many entertainers of that era, Jolson began his career performing in vaudeville and burlesque shows, many of which closing quickly, unfortunately. But by 1911 Jolson became a Broadway sensation by starring in such shows as La Belle Paree and Vera Violetta, both of which at the Winter Garden in New York City. Surprisingly, as great as Jolson was, he sometimes suffered from terrible stage fright! Nevertheless, over the years Jolson’s influence on the entertainment industry is beyond measure. In a later era, Jolson almost certainly would have been a rock star! Al Jolson died in October 1950, age 64.
4. Judy Garland
Judy Garland started in show business when she was very young – two and a half to be exact; she appeared as one of the Gumm sisters, a vaudeville singing act. After acting in short films, the group broke up and then Garland landed a job at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Rather short, plump and girl-next-doorsy, Garland nevertheless excelled with her acting ability and could sing like an adult even though only a kid. Soon Garland was acting and singing in the Andy Hardy films with Mickey Rooney, the first of which, Love Finds Andy Hardy (1937). Of course, Garland’s most memorable role in a film was playing the part of Dorothy from Kansas in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Unfortunately, at this time Garland began smoking cigarettes to keep her weight down and taking sleeping pills and uppers; she started drinking too and sometimes ingested strong pain medication.
Around 1950, when the success of Garland’s film career ebbed somewhat, Garland began touring as a solo singing act specializing in vaudeville tunes. She became a sensation performing in Europe, often bringing down the house. It seemed when Judy was at her best, there was no greater performer in show biz. Then, while making a Hollywood comeback, Garland starred in A Star Is Born (1954), a movie highlighted by Garland singing “The Man that Got Away.” Perhaps Garland’s greatest album was Judy at Carnegie Hall (1961), which charted for an incredible 95 weeks on Billboard. And Garland starred in a short-lived, but critically acclaimed TV variety show in 1963. Nevertheless, Garland’s life was cut short by too much anxiety, stress and partying. Judy Garland died in June 1969, age 47.
3. Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby’s laid-back demeanor and bass-baritone voice delighted millions of folks for decades, eventually making him the best-selling pop artist of the twentieth century, selling over one billion records, tapes and other media. Notably, Crosby charted more singles (396) than Elvis Presley and the Beatles combined. He was also the greatest pop star of radio, his recordings dominating the air waves during that entire era. Interestingly, in 1948, the singer, songwriter and actor, was labeled the “most admired man alive,” beating out the Pope. This great singer also sang in many musical films and, perhaps most famously, also appeared in numerous Road Movies with comedian Bob Hope. Notably, very impressive in films, Crosby won an Academy Award for Best Actor in Going My Way (1964).
In the old days, Crosby and his partner at the time, pianist Al Rinker, signed their first show business contracts in Los Angeles in 1925 and soon became one the biggest names in show business. But in the early 1930s, Crosby opted for a solo singing act, and he also became very popular in movies, appearing in as many as three per year. In the 1940s, Crosby’s popularity with German listeners gave him the nickname “Der Bingle,” which stuck with him the rest of his life. And from the 1950s into the 1970s, Crosby was a famous attraction on numberless TV programs and specials. Bing Crosby died in October 1977, age 74.
2. Ray Charles
Blind from glaucoma at the age of seven, Ray Charles nevertheless learned to play piano using Braille music and by his teenage years was playing piano for bands. Heavily influenced by Nat King Cole and Charles Brown, Charles recorded in 1949 his first single, “Confession Blues,” which also became his first hit, climbing to number two on the Billboard R&B chart. Excelling at R&B and the blues, Charles eventually crossed-over to other genres by the end of the 1950s and never stopped thereafter, recording such huge hits as “Georgia on My Mind” and “Hit the Road Jack.” By this time Charles was touring with a full-scale big band, as well as the Raelettes, his backup singers. Interestingly, Charles covered many country classics as well, namely “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (1962) and “Crying Time” (1967).
Of course, Charles’ list of awards and accolades is a long one indeed; he won many Grammy Awards and, seemingly, other musical artists lined up to sing his praise. Billy Joel said Ray Charles was more important than Elvis Presley; and Frank Sinatra said Charles is “the only true genius in show business.” And Rolling Stone named Charles number ten on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Ray Charles died in June 2004, age 73.
1. Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra’s professional singing career began when he joined the Hoboken Four in 1935. Soon Sinatra became the group’s lead singer – and the one who attracted most of the chicks. Then, in 1939, Sinatra recorded his first song, “Our Love,” and then joined the Harry James band, but he soon left it, joining the Tommy Dorsey Band, with which he had much greater success. Idolizing Bing Crosby, Sinatra once boasted to friends that he would “become so big nobody would ever touch him.” Following up on this braggadocio, Sinatra went solo in the 1940s and at this point his career spawned “Sinatramania”; he also became the teen idol of millions of girls known as the bobby-soxers. By the early 1950s, Sinatra had sung in 160 radio shows, recorded 36 records, starred in four movies and was performing on stage 45 times every seven days, earning more than $90,000 a week. He’d become a national sensation!
Sinatra had a lull or two in his career but overall he became one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century, selling more than 150 million records worldwide and winning 11 Grammy Awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Sinatra also became one of the greatest attractions at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. And many of his songs have become pop classics: “My Way,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Come Fly with Me,” “It Was a Very Good Year,” “Strangers in the Night,” “That’s Life” and “New York, New York,” the latter of which perhaps his greatest hit. Not surprisingly, Sinatra’s hit albums dominated the pop charts for decades. Frank Sinatra died in May 1998, age 82.
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© 2017 Kelley Marks